NAIROBI, Kenya, Feb. 13, 2010— -- The Vancouver Winter Olympics will include competitors and teams from skiing heavyweight countries such as the United States, Canada, Switzerland Italy and...Ethiopia?
Yes, Ethiopia, a country that has no ski resorts, no alpine mountains and most importantly, no snow. But that hasn't stopped Robel Teklemariam, the first athlete ever to represent Ethiopia in any Winter Games as a one-man ski team.
Teklemariam made his first Olympic appearance at the 2006 Turin games, finishing in 83rd place out of 100 among cross-country skiers. This time he says he hopes to place higher.
"I really want to have a better result as in being closer to the winner than last time," he tells ABC News via e-mail in Vancouver. But he worries that he wasn't able to have as much training on snow as he would have liked.
"I trained this fall doing a lot of running and mountain biking. Later in the fall and early winter when I got my roller skis, I was also doing a bit of that," Teklemariam says.
Born in Addis Ababa, Teklemariam, 35, moved to the United States with his mother when he was 9 years old. It was in the United States that he discovered his love for skiing, but love of his home country brought him back to live in Ethiopia four years ago.
During the ski season, Teklemariam works as a ski instructor for Club Med, a job he's done for over 10 years. During the off-season, when other competitive skiers head to the southern hemisphere for practice or have well-equipped and expensive practice facilities for their ski teams, Teklemariam gets out his roller skis, which are similar to roller blades and sets himself up in the mountains outside of Ethiopia's capital.
"Roller skiing is really the best way to simulate (cross-country) skiing ," he says. He knows that his lack of training puts him at a competitive disadvantage, but his goals in competing are much broader than winning a gold medal.
He's the founder of the Ethiopian Ski Association, an organization he formed along with other Ethiopians living in the Diaspora to try to encourage more Ethiopians living in the country to take up skiing. He says right now he's the only athlete, but that the organization is actively trying to set up ski clubs. They particularly want to get children involved.
An Ethiopian Version of 'Cool Runnings'
"For Ethiopian kids, I want them to know that it is a sport that they can have a dream for," says Teklemariam. "For all children, that no matter where you come from, if you have a dream, it is possible. You just have to go after it."
It's this type of tenacity that inspired Club Med to not only hire him, but also sponsor him, according to Kate Moeller, a Club Med spokeswoman. "We're really proud of him," says Moeller.
"Often people say you need to be from a wealthy background with a lot of resources to be able to do this," she says. "Robel's success proves that you don't need to limit yourself. People would think that if you come from a country that has no snow, you can't ski. He's living proof that yes, you can."
There are other examples of unlikely Winter Olympic athletes. Kwame "the Snow Leopard" Nkrumah-Acheampong, will be the first skier from the West African country of Ghana to compete in the Winter Olympics in Vancover. Like Teklemariam, he is also trying to promote winter sports in Ghana, where he grew up. He's reportedly working with the government to build an artificial ski slope in the hot and humid country to be completed before the 2014 games.
The Jamaican bobsled team, whose experience the film "Cool Runnings" is loosely based on, also had unlikely success in previous Olympic Games. Though the team did not qualify this year, they have been at nearly every Olympic Games since their infamous 1988 appearance. At the 1994 games, the team placed 14th, beating out the United States as well as Italy, Russia and Switzerland.
Teklemariam says while he hopes to do his personal best in his cross-country race Monday, his idea of a successful Olympic experience won't be defined by what place he finishes. He says the greatest success for him would be inspiring "at least one other Ethiopian in the world to start ski racing."